The city-state redux

16 Sep

Jamie Bartlett, in Aeon:

Until the mid-19th century, most of the world was a sprawl of empires, unclaimed land, city-states and principalities, which travellers crossed without checks or passports. As industrialisation made societies more complex, large centralised bureaucracies grew up to manage them. Those governments best able to unify their regions, store records, and coordinate action (especially war) grew more powerful vis-à-vis their neighbours. Revolutions – especially in the United States (1776) and France (1789) – helped to create the idea of a commonly defined ‘national interest’, while improved communications unified language, culture and identity. Imperialistic expansion spread the nation-state model worldwide, and by the middle of the 20th century it was the only game in town. There are now 193 nation-states ruling the world.

But the nation-state with its borders, centralised governments, common people and sovereign authority is increasingly out of step with the world.

Maybe Trump was right”

On 17 September 2016, the then presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: ‘A nation without borders is not a nation at all. We WILL Make America Safe Again!’ The outcry obscured the fact that Trump was right (in the first half, anyway). Borders determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s a citizen and who’s not, who puts in and who takes from the common pot. If a nation cannot defend its border, it ceases to exist in any meaningful way, both as a going concern and as the agreed-upon myth that it is.

Trump’s tweet was set against the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s offer, one year earlier, of asylum for Syrians. The subsequent movement of people across Europe – EU member states received 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015 – sparked a political and humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of which are still unfolding. It certainly contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. But 1.2 million people is a trickle compared to what’s coming. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and notoriously broad, but according to some estimates as many as 200 million people could be climate-change refugees by the middle of the century.

Tough, of course, The Donald doesn’t believe in climate change.

We’re shifting toward cities:

According to Katz, the world is moving beyond a nation-state world. ‘We’re entering a period where cities have new kinds of power. They have enormous chances to leverage their economic and financial advantages to augment their position and effect change,’ he told me. I’m used to thinking about power in binary terms: you either have it or you don’t. But according to Katz, we need to re-think because there is something in between, where cities are not fully independent of their nation-states, but not supplicant to them either: ‘Cities are not subordinate to nation-states, they are powerful networks of institutions and actors that co-produce the economy. Power in the 21st century belongs to the problem-solvers. National governments debate and mostly dither. Cities act, cities do. Power increasingly comes from the cities up, not handed down from the nation-state.’

What about chaser cities:

Paul Romer, the chief economist at the World Bank, has long been an advocate of creating more chartered cities, essentially city-scale administrative zones that operate, to some extent, independently. Cities are the right size, he argues. Large enough to try something new, but not too big that all your eggs are in one basket. ‘A rule to create new rules,’ Romer said in a TED talk on the subject in 2009. A chartered city, built on uninhabited land would allow experimentation with new rules and systems to attract investment and people. His particular idea is for nations to work together, like China and the UK over Hong Kong

Conclusion:

Nation-states are unlikely to collapse overnight. There are no barbarians at the gate. Even Rome did not collapse in a day. But it evolved during a time of industrialisation, centralised ‘command and control’ bureaucracies and national loyalty. Modern technology tends in the opposite direction: it’s distributed, decentralised and uncontrollable. If our political arrangements are a mirror of the modes of production and assumptions of the time, the future doesn’t look rosy for this 19th-century relic. It looks far brighter for the modern, connected, agile city, whether that’s on land, on borders, or out in the ocean. And anyway: doesn’t it pay to have some experiments going on, just in case?

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